As our national politics continues its troubling misadventure through the looking glass, we regularly have fresh cause to worry about the health of our basic democratic systems. So many things — be it Congress, the political parties’ nomination processes, even the elections in states that have passed voter suppression laws — seem to be malfunctioning.
So it’s particularly chilling to see fresh efforts to undermine the press when it does what it’s supposed to do.
When the Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump campaigns waged competing efforts to set expectations ahead of the first presidential debate, they offered competing views of press responsibility. Clinton’s allies argued that debate moderator Lester Holt, anchor of NBC’s “Nightly News,” should correct Trump when — and that’s when, not if — he blithely lied about verifiable facts. Trump’s people insisted Holt would overstep his bounds by interfering.
Holt did correct Trump on a few of his most discredited assertions. The increasingly unhinged Rudy Giuliani said afterward that if he were Trump, he’d skip future debates unless assured that “the journalist would act like a journalist and not an incorrect, ignorant fact-checker” and that any future “moderator would have to promise that there would be a moderator and not a fact-checker.”
Though Giuliani was specifically animated by a hairsplitting argument over the import of the 2013 US District Court ruling that outlawed New York City’s version of a police “stop and frisk” policy, his larger point was that a true journalist has no business openly challenging the veracity of things presidential candidates say.
That’s like saying a lifeguard oversteps her bounds by diving into the water.
Look to hear more of this insidious argument. When media reports debunk Trump’s factually incorrect assertions, this essential work is glibly dismissed as evidence of bias. At the debate, Trump waved away one example of documented fact as “mainstream media nonsense put out by” Clinton.
None of us is an expert on every issue of national consequence. We depend on professionals who are trained to help us sort through competing claims and make decisions based on the facts. If the implied hierarchy among competing sources — privileging evidence-based reports by credible news organizations over, say, an idle hot take found on a conspiracy-theory website — continues to erode, our democracy is in trouble.
We all tend to seek out news that reinforces our worldview and coverage of issues we feel to be particularly important. That’s natural. And all political parties try to influence the referees. But when establishment figures disingenuously dismiss any and all inconvenient news as evidence of bias, that’s not merely gaming the refs — it’s taking a bulldozer to the court.
It took the national media a long time to catch up to Trump, who exploited professional norms that encourage a point/counterpoint narrative and assume newsmakers stay within accepted bounds of public behavior. Dismissing his credibility, The Huffington Post initially covered Trump’s campaign in its entertainment section. TV programs amended their practices to allow him to telephone in rather than appear in person. Untold hours of free airtime were devoted to coverage of his rallies and to rambling press conferences doubling as commercials for his properties.
But we’ve turned a corner. A host of news organizations have taken to documenting each time he goes beyond typical campaign exaggerations to assert outright falsehoods. And when Trump does so, journalists like Holt now feel emboldened to say: “The record shows otherwise.”
This isn’t bias. It’s reality.
In this era of choose-your-own-news, an increasingly balkanized public has grown accustomed to choosing its own facts. But if facts are stubborn things, then so too must be the fact-checkers.